Kevin Pietersen and the Romans
Written by: Ayelet Haimson Lushkov
The Cycle of History
If you enjoyed Ayelet Haimson Lushkov's post last week on the English cricket team and rhetoric in the Roman Republic, check out this post on how old narratives like Scipio's defeat of Hannibal resonate with the biographies of modern athletes. Her book, Magistracy and the Historiography of the Roman Republic, is out in January.
To the delight of Kevin Pietersen, and to the dismay of many, I – a professional classicist – am about to compare the former England batsman to the greatest general of ancient Rome, Scipio Africanus. But before KP revels in the long due recognition of his place in history, and before members of the MCC splutter into their copies of their newspaper of choice, the comparison is one worth considering for the light it sheds both on the current brouhaha in English cricket and on the workings of Roman politics. As so often, a look at the past puts today’s affairs in perspective and teaches us something more interesting than that big personalities can get embarrassingly petty.
Usually, political careers followed a cycle, with relative obscurity following success. But every now and then, someone like Scipio came along who refused to fade into the background.
As Pietersen attempts to define the narrative of his career, he might contemplate the fate of Scipio after his famous victory over Hannibal in the Second Punic War. Not the life of perpetual glory that we might expect, but rather a constant series of attempts to stay in the limelight and to get the better of his supposedly jealous detractors at home. Scipio was even put on trial for embezzlement, but his knack for showmanship saved him. Rather than dealing with the substance of the charges, he took advantage of the fact that the trial was taking place on the anniversary of his defeat of Hannibal. “Join me in celebrating the day and thanking the gods that I was around when you needed me,” was the gist of his speech. And off he went, leading a massive procession of jubilant citizens, and setting a precedent for legal theatre and tenuous argument down to Johnnie Cochran. The prosecutors were left cooling their heels, wondering just what went wrong. Shortly thereafter, however, he ended up in self-imposed and self-righteous exile, vowing never to return to his ungrateful city. Aggrandising comparisons aside, all this sounds oddly familiar.
Scipio’s problem, like Pietersen’s, was partly that he didn’t want his narrative to conform to the norm. Usually, political careers followed a cycle, with relative obscurity following success. But every now and then, someone like Scipio came along who refused to fade into the background. As the years went by, the political system came under more and more pressure from successful men, like Julius Caesar, changing the balance between individual achievement and collective norms. The Roman republic constantly teetered between two poles: promoting the kind of superstar who could lead the empire to success, while at the same time ensuring those same people walked away from power to ensure the collaborative workings of the state. Unlike many other sports, cricket follows a similar pattern: a group of individuals working towards a common goal under the leadership of one person, rather than a more uniform team sport. Even the Ronaldos and Messis of the world can’t change the fact that football largely consists of highly co-ordinated action. Cricket, by contrast, is a game where individuals perform sequentially to accumulate or defend a personal as well as an aggregate score (Mike Brearley made this point in a fascinating piece in Point magazine in 2011). As any reader of Wisden knows cricket is a stats game in which the score-card allows none of the players to hide behind team performance.
This ethos of balancing individual and collective naturally results in certain narratives and tensions common to Roman politics and cricket. Saving the state or playing that peerless innings are both examples of narratives built around individuals, narratives which have the potential to conflict with the needs of the team or the country – from Scipio and Caesar to Boycott and KP. What we see in both cases are individuals and groups privileging one narrative over the other in order to win public support, neither side acknowledging the underlying structures and motives that make such conflicts inevitable. If these tiffs are going to be anything more than hot air, it can only be because we the public take the opportunity to think through the workings of the system – political or sporting – the values we’re prepared to defend and the bargains we’re willing to strike. The rest is for the tabloids. If athletes are contributing to that conversation, no matter how self-serving, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Julius Caesar, in fact, wrote his own autobiography, just to take no chances. Some will hope that things work out better for KP in the end.